Decaying toothbrushes dance with one another, while discarded lighters are stacked forming an orderly sculpture on a soft-lit background. Bottle caps are infused with sand, an old racket sits beaten up with delicate shadow play and plastic forms an idyllic pastel-hued structure. These factors form the spine of Thirza Schaap’s latest art project Plastic Ocean, where she eagerly collects waste from the coast of Cape Town and makes something rather attractive from it.
“The idea is to have it in your home. It’s beautiful to look at, but when you look at it closely you can see it’s just made of trash,” says Thirza, an artist, photographer and director currently residing in Cape Town. By representing this “clash” with a deceptive approach, the sculpture-based series aims to raise awareness about the pollution that’s heavily penetrating the oceans and, more importantly, the planet. But this isn’t your usual demonstration of activism; this is a beautiful and contradictory presentation of how we all need to make changes to the way we view and dispose of rubbish.
After moving from the Netherlands to South Africa a few years ago — with various travels in between — that’s where her plans for the project commenced. Plastic Ocean began as a natural process, and one that became unavoidable as Thirza and her family experienced the world around them. “We were in Bali and Mexico and we were amazed by the amount of plastic that was there; we couldn’t enjoy the holiday,” Thirza tells It’s Nice That. Devastated by what she found on the coastline, so much so that that it made her “sick”, a shock response which enabled her to take action through means of creating art.
“Like all the little girls, I was picking up shells on the beach. Then I found myself picking up pieces of plastic — I found it beautiful but it was also terrible,” she explains. “So the whole process existed and it was not something I found out about. I never thought ’this is how I’m going to do it’.” More recently, when walking along the beaches of Cape Town, Thirza would pick up items from the shore and sift through them at nearby bin to decide what will then go home with her. How she chooses each piece of plastic is simple: “I’m attracted to colours and the colours of plastic,” she says.
The juxtaposition of repulsion and beauty is imperative in these images; Thirza aims to break down these barriers by challenging our perception of what we find attractive. She tells us how an audience usually pays attention to that which is more visually appealing, so when considering the method of pastel washing her objects or placing the waste in a pleasant way, it makes a lot of sense. The artwork is intended to be displayed at home, in the kitchen or at work and will serve as subtle hint to stop using plastic. “When you’re cooking in your kitchen and the next time you do some shopping, you’ll think about not buying that cucumber with that plastic around it. It’s like a friendly reminder,” Thirza says. “I just want to share my awareness process and what I’ve been through to other people.”
In addition to Plastic Ocean, Thirza has been working in advertising directing commercials for various brands, such as McDonald’s and Pampers. As a conflict of interest, she explains how it’s “the transition, that’s what it is”. “I will give anything to continue with Plastic Ocean for the rest of my life. It provides so much power and fire for myself. I have so many big plans and it’s being picked up really well. People are really ready to change and find out what they can do,” she says. “I’m still working in advertising but that doesn’t make me less concerned about the environment.”